To Win, British Conservatives Need to Articulate Vision

Conservatives should articulate their own vision, not try to beat Labour at its game.

British prime minister David Cameron attends a meeting of the European Council in Brussels, March 20
British prime minister David Cameron attends a meeting of the European Council in Brussels, March 20 (The Prime Minister’s Office)

With Britain’s economy doing better than most in the developed world and the opposition Labour Party seemingly trapped in the past, Prime Minister David Cameron should be sailing toward reelection. Yet, with a year to go before the next general election, his Conservative Party remains unpopular and chances are it will not win a plurality of the votes, let alone a majority. What gives?

One reason, writes The Telegraph‘s Janet Daley, is the Conservatives’ political pragmatism. “They offered competence and sensible management of debt and expenditure, combined with moderate social reform, and they can plausibly claim to be on the way to delivering both.” That makes them sound enough to reelect, she suggests, “but nothing much to get excited about.”

I feared as much two years ago when conservative and liberal parties had come to power across Europe without articulating a convincing vision for their economic and fiscal reforms. “When times are tough,” I wrote, people are inclined to vote for the party that seems to them best capable of managing the nation’s finances. “As soon as a crisis is averted, which many left-wing parties seem to believe is the case, the political managers lose their appeal. People don’t just care for policy. They crave for a politics of vision.”

Austerity is not an ideology. It is a means to an end but when the end is left unsaid, who but a masochist would vote for it?

Cameron did start talking about the end goal late last year when he said spending cuts represent “something more profound” than clearing up balance sheets. “It means building a leaner, more efficient state. We need to do more with less. Not just now but permanently.”

That was getting in the right direction but hardly an advertisement for “Morning in Britain.” A compelling political vision doesn’t just talk about the state but about the whole of society. What sort of a country does Cameron want to build?

Daley points out there are many contradictions in the government’s policies. On the one hand, it gives tax relief to the lowest paid, supports a minimum wage increase and boasts that the rich have never paid more in taxes. On the other, it pushes Britons out of welfare and claims to support those who better themselves.

Labour absurdly depicts the Conservatives as “callous, out-of-touch toffs who only want to help their rich friends,” as Daley puts it, but that is now how most voters see them. Rather, “they are seen as patronizing, out-of-touch opportunists who think that uttering liberal claptrap will make them popular.”

The average voter might not think through all the contradictions in their rhetoric but does get suspicious when Conservatives claim to be beating the left at their own game. As he should. By far most Conservatives believe free enterprise and competition create a fairer society than the redistributive and statist policies offered by Labour. Most believe it’s genuinely bad for people to be dependent on welfare for years or even decades and that a job, by contrast, gives them a sense of belonging and dignity. By far most Conservative believe it is more important that people have the freedom and ability to improve their own lot than is an equitable distribution of wealth — and that therefore opportunity and social mobility should be strengthened, not sacrificed in the name of fairness.

On these issues, Cameron and his party can draw a clear contrast between themselves and Labour. If they do, they will likely be rewarded at the polls next year. If they don’t, enough centrist voters might just opt for the real deal instead and deny the Conservatives a second term.

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